Shetland's Boats: Origin, evolution and use

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The popular view is that Shetland's graceful double-ended boats are direct descendants of the Viking longship. This unbroken linking of the Shetland boat to the Norse era was fuelled by nineteenth-century romantic visions of Shetland's Viking past.

The reality is more complex as this major new study confirms. Economic and social conditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to changes both in fishing patterns and to the boats needed to meet these conditions.

There are many similarities between boats built in Shetland and those of western Norway but they became a true Shetland product when islanders began to diverge from that tradition around 1780. No longer were they Norwegian boats in Shetland, but true Shetland vernacular boats.

This book is a voyage of discovery into the origin , development and use of these unique open boats. It explores the central role these four- and six-oared boats played in everyday Shetland life, meeting the boatbuilders and the people whose way of life was centred on, and dependent upon, these seaworthy craft.

 

Marc Chivers

Paperback

293 pages

 

Book review from The Shetland Times, 25th March 2022. By Charlie Simpson. Copyright © The Shetland Times Ltd.

Shetland’s Boats – Origin, evolution and use by Marc Chivers

It is generally agreed that more than 6,000 years have passed since humans first arrived to inhabit our peerie isles.

It’s also indisputable that they arrived by sea, using a boat of some kind, seaworthy enough to safely make the journey most probably from other islands further south.

Once settled, the incoming hunter-gatherers – pre-dating agriculture by many centuries – would have been heavily reliant for subsistence on the resources of the seashore and inshore waters, and the boats that allowed their exploitation.

Fishing was the absolutely vital life-dependent means of supplementing an otherwise inadequate plant-based diet, and this reliance on boats began to lessen only a mere two centuries ago, when vessels propelled by anything other than man or wind-power first appeared over Shetland horizons.

Today in Shetland there’s no reliance left: open boats, for so long an essential means of subsistence for most, are mere playthings of recreation for a decreasing portion of our population, while the skills that created and maintained them are vocational no longer, surviving only on a dwindling domestic scale and quite liable to become extinct in a generation or two.

For all that, there has been an almost disproportionate level of interest – sentimental, nostalgic, call it what you will – throughout the time of recorded history on the subject of our Shetland boats, an interest which in many quarters is as strong as it has ever been.

As far back as the 18th century, visitors to the isles invariably noted with surprise the unique style and seaworthiness of the “native” craft they saw – totally different from boats anywhere else round the British coast – and the skills of those who manned them. 

Educated landsmen published what they learnt of the fisheries, the fishermen and especially their boats, as recently as the last decades of the last century but most prolifically while the last of the true open-boat fishermen were still alive into to the 1930s. Thus, for anybody interested in the subject of our native boats there’s a mass of relevant published material in existence.

Apart from Charles Sandison’s The Sixareen and her Racing Descendants and single chapters or sections in various other books, most of it lurks in archives and libraries hither and yon, ranging between short journal articles and fragmentary mentions in various books on wider topics.

Many of its elements contradict one another – few present anything other than an island or even district-related perspective and there are many gaps in the narrative.

Up to now, therefore, making  a “big picture” from the many pieces has been a long and time-consuming exercise to say the least.

For this reason alone, I was delighted to be asked to review a new book which lays out virtually the whole story from earliest days right up to the present under one cover, thanks to Marc Chivers whose PhD thesis was sponsored by Lerwick Port Authority and Shetland Amenity Trust back in 2013.

His painstaking research over four years mined just about every relevant source, and its adaption into book form now gives us arguably  the most thorough account yet produced of the origins  of the “Shetland Model” – the double-ended fourareens and sixareens that were the essential tools in our fishing industry for a very long time – and traces its evolution right into the present day. The result is Shetland’s Boats: origin, evolution and use – it’s a pretty impressive work.

The opening chapter sets the scene for us, outlining the very earliest settlement of the isles, and the sparse boat-related evidence from archaeological and saga sources, into the Norse settlement era.

The settlers from western Norway obviously brought their boats with them, boats of a style that endures to the present day.

Once the realms of recorded history are reached, the bare bones of the story are soon clad in an increasing volume of archival detail – which represents a testament to the huge expansion of archives and their accessibility over the past seventy years or so.

This access enabled the author to explore in great detail many aspects of the centuries of importing boats from Norway into Shetland, of the kinds of boats from whillies to “great boats” pulling eight oars, along with the four- and six-oared craft in most common use, and all the accessories such as oars, spars, scoops, cordage, tar and whatnot.

Besides their use for fishing, boats were essential tools for travel between isles for many centuries until the creation of roads from the 1840s onwards.

After Earl Patrick’s day the system was governed by statute, with fares prescribed for the multitude of routes between islands, and also between many mainland places in order to avoid steep hills or shorelines.

When native Shetlanders filled the trading vacuum after the retreat of visiting German traders in the early 18th century, we learn of their triangular trade route – fish to Hamburg, then domestic and fishing-related goods of every kind homeward, including a diversion along Norwegian ports to top up the cargo with timber goods – especially boats and boat parts.

Naval blockade during the Napoleonic wars stifled this trade and expanded the practice of building the necessary boats in the isles using native skills; skills often developed and honed through the earlier need to assemble the partly-built or even kit-form boat imports. A later chapter provides an intriguing comparison between Shetland- and Norway-built boats and the contrasts in design, building practices and materials.

The Custom House records reveal the extent of the boat-import trade over time – and in combination with merchants’ letter-books reveal the extent to which avoiding import duty was a common practice.

It confirms that fourareen imports generally outnumbered sixareens, and the sheer quantity of boats involved is an indicator that haaf sixareens had short working lives, seldom lasting  ten seasons before wearing out. As the 20th century came in, of course, the last fishing sixareens were retired for ever, leaving only a few to survive as flit-boats over the following decades – or as roofs for sheds.

Also from the Custom House, the Register of Fishing Boats dating from 1869 is a valuable source of information on individual boats, a virtual census giving owner, dimensions, rig and location. Again, the author’s detailed analysis of the register confirms the predominance of fourareens and shows the slightly uneven distribution of sixareen ownership which contrasts markedly with the ubiquitous fourareen.

The twentieth century brings much more archival detail, with many builders’ and fishermens’ accounts of boat construction and use – and photographic illustration aplenty.

Many of the well-known boatbuilders from the late nineteenth century onwards are still subjects of living memory, and many of their boats have happily survived, with some of  their memoirs preserved  in print.

This enabled the author to produce a detailed account of the progressive evolution of the “Shetland Model”, including an overview of the boats developed and kept purely for racing, right up to the present day.

The tale of the rise and fall of country regattas and the fleets of Maid class boats will evoke fond memories – and probably some regrets – in an age where the dinghy rules and the “Shetland” boat is an expensive sailing machine for a well-heeled few.    Although wooden boatbuilding is a career no longer, the author’s recording of the memories of its last professional practitioners and their teachers are worthily recorded for posterity – and not before time. 

All in all, as I said before, Marc Chivers has produced the first comprehensive all-embracing account of our Shetland boats and is to be congratulated along with his far-sighted sponsors and its publisher.

I remember being of the opinion when the project was first promoted that there was enough stuff on record already, which ignored the fact that it was dispersed piecemeal throughout a huge number of archive sources here at home, along with all the others in Scotland and Norway.

His gathering of all this material together into a coherent big-picture narrative is nevertheless a commendable achievement, and although there are – as expected perhaps – no startling revelations, the analysis is painstaking and thorough, and the end result a very welcome addition to the bibliography of its vast subject.